Cooper: Differences emerging between Chattanooga mayoral candidates White, Kelly

Staff Photo By C.B. Schmelter / Mayoral candidate Kim White speaks during an election night party at The Westin after the city's primary election earlier this month.
Staff Photo By C.B. Schmelter / Mayoral candidate Kim White speaks during an election night party at The Westin after the city's primary election earlier this month.

The individual elected mayor of Chattanooga in next month's runoff will be the first to achieve that office in the midst of a global pandemic, without the backing of crowds at rallies, without venues full of people to see the candidates explain their differences in person, and without the amount of interaction between candidate and potential voter that is usually possible.

For many Chattanooga voters, then, what they know - and feel - about Tim Kelly and Kim White is gathered from a rectangular screen, from a Facebook live or Zoom forum in which they repeat their position on issues they've given on numerous other occasions since the primary campaign began.

Such venues are critical to inform voters, even if the questions and answers at each one begin to sound familiar. However, in a forum sponsored by the Times Free Press and WRCB-TV Thursday night, several exchanges stood out.

* Where You Came From: In introductory remarks, White, the former nonprofit River City Co. CEO who has been endorsed by this page, mentioned as she often does that she was born to 17-year-old parents and grew up in the Hixson area, worked to attend the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, moved away and later returned to the city to "find my way" in the job market without business or political connections.

Kelly, answering the first question on opportunities for lower- and middle-income families, made a point to say he "didn't come from old money." We're not sure what constitutes "old money," specifically, but, until selling the business in 2020, he was a third-generation car dealer whose family was and is wealthy. Unquestionably, he also helped his own lot by starting or buying businesses and making them successes.

(READ MORE: Video: Tim Kelly, Kim White snipe over politics, business in Chattanooga mayoral debate)

He also has had to answer critics who say he is trying to buy the mayor's office by lending his campaign $1.1 million, but he has said he is using his own money in order not to make himself beholden to special interest groups. We're not sure when the last time special interests groups ran the city, or if he is suggesting White would be beholden to them, but we prefer White's strategy of raising money - as she said Thursday she had done - from every district in the city.

* Downtown vs. Neighborhoods: An occasional criticism of the current Berke mayoral administration is that it has focused on downtown to the exclusion of neighborhoods. We don't think that's entirely fair, but because downtown improvements get more attention any disparity is more magnified.

Both Kelly and White have said they will bring attention to neighborhoods, Kelly tying it to his "One Chattanooga" vision and White saying she quit her job at River City to go out and listen to residents in every district describe their vision to her.

Answering a question Thursday about whether the city's downtown was being overdeveloped, Kelly said it was and that such overdevelopment risked creating a "bubble," assumably meaning not enough tenants for such developments.

But White said no, the city's downtown needs more development, but she emphasized it needs to be "smart" development and that the city's infrastructure must keep up with that development. She cited that, "contrary to belief," downtown housing is 70%-80% full and that the former Alstom and Wheland properties offer excellent space for new, smart, planned development.

While White has emphasized the attention she'll put on neighborhoods, we believe her vision for downtown development - rooted in her tenure at River City, which was that nonprofit's focus - is easily the wiser of the two.

* Plans for Black Chattanooga: Kelly for weeks has been touting his "Better Way Forward - Tim Kelly's Plan for the Black Community," frequently saying he is the only candidate who has such a plan. His plan explains ideas in areas such as home ownership, businesses, culture, education, environmental justice and income inequality. White, meanwhile, has woven the ideas she has heard from all neighborhoods into the overall plans she has put forth.

When on Thursday he again made the statement about being the only candidate with a plan for the Black community, White pounced.

"I'm not arrogant enough to go into the Black community and say I have a plan for your community," she said. What she has done and will do, she said, is to listen to what the community wants and help bring the necessary "tools" in order to bring about the changes and improvements that are sought and needed.

We believe, where change in cities occurs, a bottom-up plan is better than one that is top-down, and that is why we prefer White's sense of how to effect that change.

When candidates are confined to a rectangular screen, it's difficult to get the full gist of who they are and how they've come to the plans they've elucidated. We believe those are gradually becoming clearer in separating the two candidates for Chattanooga's next mayor.

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